Saturday 29 December 2007

Film review: The Golden Compass

The current Christmas fantasy blockbuster, this is based on Northern Lights (known as The Golden Compass outside the UK), the first volume of Philip Pullman's highly successful His Dark Materials trilogy. I read the trilogy a few years ago and, while I wouldn't call myself a fan, thought it worth the fairly considerable time involved (there is a total of nearly 1,300 pages). Although marketed for children, Pullman did not write for this audience - the marketing decision was based on the fact that the principal characters are children - and in fact the tale is rather grim for the young.

For those unfamiliar with the story, a brief background: this is an unusual and complex fantasy, involving a parallel world (of approximately late-Victorian technical development) with people whose souls are housed outside the body, in talking animals called daemons. The story focuses on a 12-year old English girl – Lyra Bellaqua (very well played in the film by 13-year old novice Dakota Blue Richards) – who becomes the focus of interest of the powerful religious Magisterium and its ally, the formidable Mrs Coulter (an excellent performance by Nicole Kidman, with just the right blend of beauty, charm and reasonableness covering evil intent). In this first part, young children keep disappearing and Lyra, with the aid of a truth-divining pocket-watch like device known as the alethiometer (the Golden Compass of the film title), becomes involved in trying to discover what has happened to them. Lyra's journey takes her to an experimental station in the far north, and encounters with giant talking polar bears, who wear armour and live for fighting.

When making a film of a long and complex book (six or seven hours of reading, condensed into a couple of cinematic hours), the film-makers can either cut out many characters and large chunks of the plot, or can try to include all of the key elements but treat them rather briefly. In the case of The Golden Compass, the later course has been selected. The film starts with a long, voice-over infodump to try to get the audience up and running, then (as far as I can recall) remains more or less faithful to the book thereafter, but with each scene cropped in a way which keeps the story moving quickly. This works well enough for those familiar with the plot, for whom it acts as a kind of visual refresher, but may I suspect prove confusing and even irritating to the uninitiated. On the credit side, there are many visually spectacular scenes and the CGI is as good as we have come to expect. The acting is also very good from a strong cast, including the Casino Royale pairing of the rugged Daniel Craig as Lyra's "uncle" Lord Asriel and the beautiful Eva Green as the witch-queen Serafina Pekkala.

The trilogy has attracted controversy because of its anti-religious content, which becomes stronger in the later books. Not surprisingly, the Christian churches have reacted rather badly to the success of the series, although this aspect has been played down in this first film. I presume that films of the other volumes will follow if this one is successful (which so far it seems to be, although less so in the USA).

Overall, a good effort and I will certainly be watching the sequels, if they appear.

Saturday 22 December 2007

Review: Veniss Underground by Jeff VanderMeer

This review is of the Tor 2004 edition which also includes a novella set in the same world, Balzac's War. It is a first novel by an established short-story writer.

Veniss Underground is a dark and grim fantasy set in a dystopian future; one in which Artificial Intelligences had previously taken control only to be overthrown by a human revolt. People now live in scattered cities, each enclosed within a massive wall and surrounded by wasteland. The city of the title, Veniss (nothing to do with Venice), does not just exist above ground but has thirty levels below of steadily increasing degradation. Escape from the underground is tightly controlled and possible only by means of a lottery.

Veniss above ground is in no great shape either. Contact has been lost with planets formerly colonised, and the space ships no longer call. The city is in a slow, inevitable decline, with the administration struggling to keep its basic services functioning. Policing has been outsourced to private security firms, which have divided the city up into zones with checkpoints on the boundaries. Life is decadent for the privileged, dangerous for the rest.

There are four principal human characters in the story (plus a non-human one). Shadrach Begolem is a lottery-winner from underground and now a "fixer" for the mysterious and apparently all-powerful Quin, a genetic engineer who has created intelligent life forms, most notably giant meerkats able to speak (one of which is the non-human character). The other two are twins, Nicholas and Nicola; the former a failed artist, the latter a computer software expert helping to keep the city functioning, and Shadrach's former lover.

The viewpoint shifts between the characters: at first, Nicholas tells the story in the first person. Then the focus switches to Nicola, whose story is told in the second person. The final – and longest – part of the tale is told from Shadrach's viewpoint, in the third person. This sounds confusing but in fact works well and does not break the flow of the story: for those interested in writing as well as reading, it makes for an interesting case study.

The plot is complex, but after initially focusing on the relationships between the characters, it switches to Shadrach's attempts to find Nicola, believed missing in the underground. This is a place of gothic horror; of organ banks and grossly deformed creatures created in Quin's experiments. Some of the descriptive passages are so gruesome that they proved a bit much for your reviewer's delicate sensibilities, so were skimmed over. Despite this, there was no danger of my giving up on the story, as it was gripping enough to hold my attention to the end. It is, I suspect, a story and a world likely to stick in my mind. I was reminded a little of Cordwainer Smith, although the tone is more Bladerunner.

Veniss Underground finishes with an Afterword, a combination of a short story which gives some pre-history, and some notes in the author's voice.

The novella, Balzac's War, is set much later, in a city which had been formerly abandoned and becomes the scene of a climactic battle between the remnants of humanity and large, intelligent, genetically-engineered animals. Again, the tone is dark, grim, gruesome and dystopic.

I normally dislike the kind of stories in this book, but the author's writing is good enough to keep me reading; he has the ability to make me interested in the characters, and care about what happens to them.

Saturday 15 December 2007

Review: A Trace of Memory by Keith Laumer

Keith Laumer (1925-1993) was a prolific American SF author who specialised in fast-paced adventure stories (of which the Bolo series, concerning intelligent tanks, is best known) and comic satire, notably in the Retief books about an interstellar diplomat. A Trace of Memory, published in 1963, is a stand-alone novel in the former category.

The story is set in the (then) present day with the protagonist a capable but down on his luck American drifter called Legion. He accidentally becomes involved with Foster, a wealthy middle-aged man, who is desperate to flee some unspecified danger. To make matters worse, Foster falls into a coma while they are on the run and, the next morning, wakes up not just restored but rejuvenated. He has the appearance of a twenty year old; but no memory of who he was or what had happened to him.

Legion is drawn along in Foster's search for answers to his identity, a search which ends in the discovery of an ancient control centre from where they trigger the recall of a spacecraft which takes them to its mothership in distant Earth orbit. Foster realises that he originally came from this ship; he is able to recover some general memories of his language and culture with the aid of mental-transfer teaching devices, but is still unable to discover his identity. Foster's people are related to Earth humans, but long ago overcame the disease which causes old age. They are virtually immortal, but every century or so their bodies reset to a younger age, when their memories are wiped. To overcome this, they download their memories ready for uploading afterwards, but Foster cannot find his old memory record.

Foster takes the mothership back to his home planet in search of answers, while Legion takes the shuttle, loaded with saleable high-tech products from the mothership, back to Earth to enjoy a life of wealth and ease. This does not last; he finds himself chased off Earth and decides to take the shuttle in search of Foster. On arrival at Foster's home planet, Legion finds the situation radically different from what he expected and there are various twists and turns before the conclusion.

This book is certainly a page-turner (I finished it in one sitting) with something of the style of an old-fashioned private eye novel; in fact, it reads more as if it belonged to the 1940s rather than the 1960s. I have to admit that while it's a fun read, it isn't brilliant; the characterisation is minimal, there is no mention of women except for the brief appearance of a girlfriend, and there are plot holes which suggest a rather cursory attention to logical consequences. I have a few more of Laumer's books which have been sitting on my shelf for decades, and I hope to work my way round to re-reading them in due course because I enjoyed them as a young lad, but on this basis I'm not too optimistic. Still, at least it's short!

Saturday 8 December 2007

Scales review

Another review of Scales, this time a long Featured Review by Nathan Brazil on the SF Site. A brief extract:

"Narrated in the first person, the very readable story suggests inspiration from Robert A. Heinlein's Stranger In A Strange Land, the TV series Sliders, David Icke and a smattering of Harry Turtledove's Worldwar novels. I found it entertaining throughout, and finished keen to read more."

Review: City of Truth by James Morrow

Veritas is a (more or less contemporary) city in which the population has been conditioned to be completely honest at all times. As young children, they go through an agonising ritual in which they are forced to repeat lies and given electric shocks each time, until they cannot even think of lying without feeling ill.

James Morrow's satirical novella explores the implications of this for Veritas society. Some of the results are very funny, as any kind of dishonesty or unsubstantiated claims are impossible. So you have cars with such names as the "Ford Sufficient" and "Plymouth Adequate", a restaurant offering "Murdered Cow Sandwich with Wilted Hearts Lettuce and High-Cholesterol Fries", a morning TV programme called "Enduring Another Day", a "Camp Ditch-The-Kids" summer camp, the "Centre for Palliative Treatment of Hopeless Diseases" and (my favourite) an illuminated sign on the cathedral: "Assuming God Exists, Jesus May Have Been His Son".

The effect on interpersonal relationships is indicated by the vow at a traditional wedding ceremony: "To have and to hold, to love and to cherish, to the degree that these mischievous and sentimental abstractions possess any meaning." All those little "white lies" and "lies by omission" which lubricate relationships in our world are impossible, so a degree of frankness which we would consider brutally rude is the norm.

Living in this "City of Truth" is the protagonist, Jack Sperry, with his wife and young son. He is a critic, which involves destroying any artistic products (sculpture, written works and film) which are not factually accurate: which is to say, nearly all of them. His acceptance of their way of life becomes severely strained when his son falls seriously ill, and he seizes on a banned text which suggests that a positive mental attitude can cure illness. What follows is a journey into the Veritasian underworld, where there is a secret society of people who have been de-conditioned so that they can lie again. He decides to undergo this process so that he can convince his son that he can defeat this illness.

Mostly comic, at times tragic, this tale holds up a mirror to our society: not exactly a distorting mirror, but a flat one which shows the distortions in our lives. Such distortions seem to be basic to human nature and have no doubt occurred in all human cultures to some extent, but our current society has developed them into a fine art. We live in a comforting cocoon of tacitly approved deceit, hypocrisy, euphemism and "spin", so all-pervasive that we barely notice it (except when a politician is interviewed on TV). Morrow's style has been likened to Vonnegut's, but this wry little story reminded me of Swift. As a valuable reminder of the lack of truthfulness in our society, it should be read by everyone!

Saturday 1 December 2007

On publishing, a disappointment and Interzone 213

By "on publishing" I'm not referring to the article of that name on my website (although I will probably be revising it in the light of what follows) but to an item in 'Vector', the reviews 'n interviews journal of the British Science Fiction Association. This is a very long (seven page) interview of Jo Fletcher by Graham Sleight. Jo Fletcher is editorial director of Gollancz, and she gives a frank and honest appraisal of the current British SF publishing scene which is quite the best thing I've ever read on the subject. Really fascinating for all authors (actual and prospective) and readers too; it sheds a great deal of illumination on many aspects how the system works.

The disappointment came with Peter David's satirical fantasy novel 'Sir Apropos of Nothing'. This must have had some very good reviews, because these days I don't buy books without them. My problem with the story is that I found it slow and unengaging, and not particularly amusing. It was well-enough written, and I wouldn't argue with those who like it, but it didn't hit the spot with me. I read the first four chapters (86 pages) and, had it been the same length as the typical classics I've been reviewing lately, I probably would have persevered to the end. But I noticed that it runs to almost 650 pages and I asked myself "do I really want to devote that many precious hours to this book?" And the answer came "no, not really". So I stopped.

Which brings me on to Interzone 213, which I did read from cover to cover. The usual mix of news, reviews, graphics and short stories. The front cover, showing nightmarish gothic spacecraft over a contrastingly dull-looking city of packed skyscrapers, is by Kenn Brown.

Featured in this issue is a special report on the Yokohama Worldcon (that's a science-fiction convention, to the uninitiated) which gives a flavour of the strangeness of that country as seen through western eyes. In that respect, it put me in mind of 'Lost in Translation', that (non-SF) Bill Murray film. An interesting read, reminding us that there are other worlds of SF about which we know little, due to the translation problems. I have a book which gives a rare insight into this particular world: 'The Best Japanese Science Fiction Stories', edited by Apostolou and Greenberg, published by Barricade Books, USA, in 1997: recommended.

There's a regular column of short obituaries, which this time includes Robert Bussard (1928-2007), the US physicist who invented the concept of the Bussard Ramjet, a slower-than-light starship drive which will be familiar to readers of Niven's 'Known Space' series, among others.

The reviews include one of a non-fiction book: 'Beyond Human: Living with Robots and Cyborgs' by SF author Greg Benford and Elizabeth Malatre, which explores the possibilities of human interactions with increasingly intelligent machines. Personally I can't help thinking that an intelligent and vaguely humanoid companion is likely to prove highly attractive to a lot of people, being far more dependable and loyal than a human and more interesting than a dog. Provided that they don't "do a Hal" and go frighteningly wrong, of course…

The interview is with Gary Gibson, author of 'Angel Stations', 'Against Gravity' and 'Stealing Light', described as technological space operas (I can't comment, not having read them). He has some interesting observations on the nature of religious belief and its place in SF, plus the nature of space travel. As an occasional author myself, I read his account of the circumstances in which he wrote his latest novel with attention. He comments on the great benefit to authorial focus of being housebound with nothing else to do for months, but since in his case this involved floating on painkillers as a result of a major back problem I think I'll pass.

And so to the stories, with a familiar mix ranging from the conventional to the rather odd.

'Molly and the Red Hat' by Benjamin Rosenbaum, comes in the latter category, a bizarre present-day fantasy about a little girl's search for her red hat, which is rather more than it seems. It involves the Queen of the Owls, a visit to Outthrown Trashland and an angry version of herself. I enjoy contemporary urban fantasies, the sort which show bizarre and fantastic worlds running in parallel with our own (and if you do too, and you haven't yet read Sheri Tepper's 'The Marianne Trilogy', do all that you can to get hold of a copy. I posted a brief review on this blog: see the reviews index, lower left). This one was a bit too strange for my taste, with a dreamlike, or perhaps nightmarish, quality; a touch of the 'Alice in Wonderlands'.

'The Men in the Attic' by John Philip Olsen, is a story which I started out disliking. Not that it's a bad story; it featured the minds of political refugees being given virtual asylum inside the head of the principal character (while their bodies are hidden away), in such a way that he can "visit" them in their virtual apartment. What I disliked in this story is the sense of impending doom, the near-certainty that it will all end in tears. But just as I thought this was duly being delivered, an intriguing get-out scenario appeared, which redeemed the tale for me.

'The Best of Your Life' by Jason Stoddard, is one of those in which you (well, me anyway) only really figure out what's going on towards the end, so you feel you have to read it again. It's set in a dystopian near-future world in which existence is hard unless you manage to earn enough to live in a protected settlement, in which you are provided with an attractive spouse who has agreed to be 'wired', i.e. electronically stimulated to be devoted to you, in return for escaping from destitution. Which is fine until the system goes wrong…

'Odin's Spear' by Steve Bein, is a story of obsession: two mountaineers determined to climb the highest peak in the Solar System, which happens to be an ice pinnacle on Callisto, one of the moons of Jupiter. To make it a suitable challenge, they wear suits which simulate the gravity of Earth plus the reducing air pressure as they climb higher.

The story section is topped and tailed by two unrelated ones which are coincidentally set in alternate worlds in which the current western hegemony did not come to pass (is it my imagination or are alternate world stories becoming increasingly common?). Both are good reads.

In 'Metal Dragon Year', by Chris Roberson, the Muslim world has spread to include Imperial China, which becomes the centre of its power. The Muslim empire did at one time cover the world, until a successful revolt by Mexica. There is now a space race in which both powers are trying to be the first to make a manned launch. We follow the tale of the Imperial Chinese engineer given the responsibility for winning that race, but something is wrong…This is a part of the author's 'Celestial Empire' sequence, which so far includes no less than two forthcoming novels plus a third in progress.

'The Lost Xuyan Bride', by Aliette de Bodard, is set in a world in which the Chinese were the first to reach the Americas, which are now divided into three; the powerful Chinese Xuyan in the west, the Aztec Greater Mexica (an interesting coincidence in names) to the south and the American (i.e. European) east. The story follows an American private detective trapped in Xuyan, who is commissioned to find a missing teenage girl of a wealthy Xuyan family. The culture clashes are interesting, and the alternate world could support a lot more stories about this character, if the author was so minded.

I have never been a great fan of short stories (and not so far been tempted to write any) but they are beginning to grow on me as a result of reading Interzone. There is something intriguing about these brief glimpses into other realities, merely suggesting worlds which would have been explored in detail in novels. I think I prefer that approach to its converse, the long epic fantasy in which a complex world is created in exhaustive detail (with an honourable exception for Tolkien, of course: the giant surrounded by a flock of knee-high wannabes), but each to his/her own.